Rogue Satellites No Boon to Space Enthusiasts

April 17, 2018

By Dr. Alex "Sandy" Antunes
Professor, Astronautical Engineering

Can anyone launch a satellite? Only in the sense that anyone can fly an airplane -- as long as they train up, get the proper license, and get clearance to take off each time.

One satellite start-up just might have skipped that middle step in their path to orbit, however.  At least they earn the distinction of being (if proven) the first unauthorized satellites ever launched by a US company.

The facts are that a US startup company in 'stealth mode' called Swarm Technologies was turned down for their FCC license, but launched a month later anyway, on the Indian Space Agency's ISR0 rocket. Their SpaceBee-1, -2, -3, and -4 were smaller than CubeSats and listed as (from IEEE) '“two-way satellite communications and data relay” devices from the United States. No operator was specified, and only ISRO publicly noted that they successfully reached orbit the same day.'

One of the hardest tasks for our Cactus-1 CubeSat is the FCC paperwork. It was easier winning our launch bid than figuring out the FCC spec. There are forms, mandatory software, affidavits needs from local operators -- we submitted our application in December and still spend half a day a week working on the next FCC steps.

I would love to be able to 'ignore' the FCC like Swarm Technologies allegedly did, but that happens to be illegal -- and for good reason.  The reason for licensing is twofold: to ensure no satellite interferes with emergency or broadcast services, and to minimize orbital risk from too much small 'space junk' potentially being in orbit.  Information indicates the SpaceBees were so small, the FCC was concerned with not being able to track or manage them.

This is actually an international compliance issue.  Each satellite-using country coordinates via the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU) -- the FCC is just the US's agency.  If we didn't coordinate, not only would we be putting other missions at risk, not only would other missions be allowed to interfere with our communications, but emergency services and aircraft world-wide would be put at risk by errant broadcasters and uncoordinated transmitters.

I've written before on the risks of bad actors in the new space age we're in, because compliance is a tricky thing. It's arguable that the greatest achievements of Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne and SpaceX's Falcon-1 rocket were not just technical but were in breaking the 'paperwork barrier' that made it very hard for independent companies to try for launch. They succeeded through persistence and lobbying, not just flat out ignoring international regs.

If you're a US citizen or US company, you have to follow US law -- even if the paperwork is hard, it's got a reason for existing. Unfortunately, this one bad actor could result in more scrutiny and more paperwork now for the rest of us. This company didn't just ignore a requirement, they were told 'no' and went ahead anyway. This is the CubeSat 'drone on the White House lawn' level of idiocy, where a selfish user ends up making it harder for everyone else who is complying.

So far, there hasn't been a clear restriction on future flights.  Our own Cactus-1 FCC license is still processing without any extra stress. Space is big, but not big enough for bad actors.  Let us hope this is a one-time anomaly, that no other space company will run afoul of some FCC or NOAA regulation. Wait, what? NOAA has a problem with SpaceX's rocket cameras? 

Stay tuned for the next blog post -- on who can take pictures from space.